City public safety director questioned on snow response

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A Pittsburgh City Council task force's long-awaited interview with Public Safety Director Michael Huss regarding February's snow emergency focused today on problems with communications, tire chains and electricity at city facilities.

It also had its testy moments.

Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak reminded Mr. Huss that she had asked him seven times to meet with her Task Force on Emergency Operations and Snow Preparedness before issuing the subpoena that finally prompted his attendance.

"I was so disheartened, Director Huss, when you did not respond to any of the seven invitations," she said after calling him to council's table. "It's this total lack of communication that is concerning to me."

Mr. Huss later countered that he was distressed at Ms. Rudiak's public comments about city snow emergency management days after the Feb. 5 storm.

"Councilwoman, I was disappointed on Monday of the event when you stated we failed," he said. "Now, at that moment in time, we had another storm bearing down on us."

The task force asked for Mr. Huss' attendance but got more than it bargained for when around 20 of the top staff from the Police Bureau, Fire Bureau, Bureau of Building Inspection, Emergency Medical Services, Animal Control Division, Emergency Operations Center and Department of Public Works came to Council Chamber. Some grumbled when the meeting did not start until 22 minutes after its scheduled 10 a.m. beginning. Ms. Rudiak attempted to dismiss them, calling them "extremely busy people, and I don't want to keep you for hours at a meeting." Mr. Huss, though, asked them to stay.

Ms. Rudiak asked about Mr. Huss' decision to leave the city late in the afternoon on Feb. 5. He went to Seven Springs with Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, who was celebrating his 30th birthday that weekend.

Mr. Huss defended that decision, saying the administration during the week leading up to the storm had "extensive conference calls with the National Weather Service" that suggested the storm's center would stay south of Pittsburgh, dumping around 8 inches on the city by Feb. 7. He said that on Feb. 5, at 7:13 p.m. --- hours after he left the city --- the forecast changes to 15 inches, which turned out to be at least 5 inches short of the mark.

The Post-Gazette reported National Weather Service estimates of 6 to 12 inches on Feb. 4.

Ms. Rudiak questioned city preparedness, noting that during the snow clearance crisis, the city was buying supplies from the website www.tirechains.com. Mr. Huss said that purchase was made to replace "cable chains" on city ambulances that did not work in the deep snow.

The councilwoman added that some city locations, including the new Zone 3 police station, lost power and had no backup generators.

"There have been stories of folks that have literally had to put on tire chains in the dark with flashlights," Ms. Rudiak said.

Mr. Huss said that the Zone 3 station was built without backup power due to budgetary constraints, and there were no plans to fit city facilities with generators. "We simply can't afford to outfit all of our stations with emergency power," he said.

A desire to limit fuel costs and protect the environment has driven the city to buy primarily front-wheel-drive vehicles, rather than four-wheel-drive vehicles, Mr. Huss said. That hampered some activities.

But Mr. Huss denied Ms. Rudiak's contention that some city vehicles were unable to leave their stations because they were snowed in. He also resisted her suggestions that public safety station parking lots should have been plowed early in the effort.

"I don't think our residents would stand for us plowing public safety parking lots when there are two feet of snow on our streets," he said.

More details in tomorrow's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Rich Lord: rlord@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1542


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